10 Good Japanese Movies

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 5:24 pm

The 10 good Japanese movies listed in the following post provide an excellent starting point for anyone interested in expanding their cinematic horizons. Visually stunning and filled with unique characters and settings, Japanese films can serve as a refreshing change for those tired of Hollywood’s obsession with remakes and reboots. If you’re a newcomer to good Japanese movies, I would offer the following tips:

Tokyo Story (1953) – A couple travel to Tokyo to see their grown children. Once there, they realize their busy children are too caught up in their own lives to spend much time with them. A brilliant meditation on life, loss, and the inevitable drift between parents and their children. The film has a 100% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s been named one of the ten greatest movies ever made by Sight & Sound magazine.

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Ugetsu (1953) – As war rages across the Omi Province in the late 16th century, two couples deal with issues involving greed, adultery, honor, love and death. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, this Japanese classic has frequently been listed among the greatest films ever made.

Branded to Kill (1967) – Influencing everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Chan-wook Park, this satirical yakuza film follows the exploits of contract killer Goro Hanada. After failing to complete a difficult assignment, he’s hunted by the mysterious Number One Killer.

Zatoichi (2003) – A modern update on the popular blind swordsman character from Japanese film and television. Beat Takeshi stars in the lead role, and he also directs. Zatoichi wanders into the middle of a Yakuza gang war in a village and comes to the aid of the locals. He also assists a pair of geisha in their quest to take revenge on those responsible for the death of their parents. Besides the quick and lethal swordfights, one of the highlights is an impromptu dance number led by a noted Japanese tap dance troupe.

Red Beard (1965) – In the 19th century, a rural doctor (Toshiro Mifune) takes on a brash new student who aspires to care for wealthy patients. This non-samurai film from director Akira Kurosawa examines social injustice and remains just as relevant today as in the ‘60s.

Rashomon (1950) – Often credited with introducing Japanese cinema to the West, this Akira Kurosawa film tells its tale from several perspectives, including that of a captured bandit, a raped women, her dead samurai husband, and a woodcutter. It would later influence everything from the animated Hoodwinked to an episode of All in the Family. Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune stars.

Ikiru (1952) – Another classic from Akira Kurosawa, Ikiru deals with a bureaucrat who learns he’s dying of stomach cancer. With less than a year to live, he decides to do at least one thing that matters before his time is up. Roger Ebert has referred to it as Kurosawa’s greatest film.

Kwaidan (1964) – Four separate tales of terror drawn from Japanese folk stories. The tales are entitled “The Black Hair,” “The Woman of the Snow,” “Hoichi the Earless,” and “In a Cup of Tea.” Filled with tension and suspense, Kwaidan emphasizes mood over blood and gore.

Tampopo (1985) – Calling itself the first “noodle western,” Tampopo begins with a pair of truckers vowing to help a window turn her noodle stand into a major success. From there, the comedy veers into a number of food-related vignettes, and anyone who loves to eat should appreciate this good-natured romp.

Battle Royale (2001) – Adapting the popular manga to the big screen, Battle Royale takes a look at a dark future where Japanese youths drop out of school in large numbers and otherwise make life miserable for the adults. That’s when the Millennium Educational Reform Act is passed, allowing the government to take a random class of students to a remote island and force them to fight to the death. If that doesn’t teach the kids who’s boss, then nothing will. A controversial film for its depictions of teenagers killing each other in various ways, it entertains both as an action film and a piece of social commentary about the distrust between the generations in Japan.

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